Thursday, 13 March 2014

13 March 1881: The Assassination of Alexander II

On this day in history, 13 March 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by Nikolai Rysakov, a twenty-year old Russian revolutionary and member of the left-wing terrorist organisation Narodnaya Volya. The Tsar, as he was prone to do on Sundays, had travelled that day to the Mikhailovsky Manege for the military roll call by a carriage. Rysakov threw a bomb at the carriage which killed one of the Cossacks accompanying the carriage. There were two further bombers, Hryniewiecki and Emelyanov, involved. The Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg where he was given Communion and last rites before dying later that day, in a horribly mutilated condition.

What drove numerous assassination attempts against the Tsar? Alexander II has traditionally been characterised by historians as successful, in comparison with both his predecessors and successors. Born on 29 April 1818 in Moscow to Nicholas I and his consort Alexandra Fyodorovna, Alexander was emperor for twenty-six years before his reign came to a grisly and bloody end in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia at that time.

Alexander was tutored by Vasily Zhukovsky, a noted translator and liberal romantic poet. Under his tuition the Tsarevich became familiar with several European languages. Alexander is famous for being the first heir to the throne to visit Siberia, as part of a six-month tour of Russia in which he visited 20 provinces. In 1855, aged thirty-seven, Alexander succeeded the throne following the death of Nicholas I. He continued to prosecute the Crimean War then occupying Russia, before suing for peace aided by his councillor Prince Gorchakov.

Russia had been badly hit by the Crimean War, leading the new Tsar to enact a phase of reforms. Alexander is perhaps most famous for instigating the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This deeply affected the economic, political and social future of Russia as a nation, for the emancipation involved far greater issues than merely the freedom of serfs. Led by Konstantin Romanov, Yakov Rostovtsev and Nikolay Milyutin, the serfs gained freedom that year. The Russian government also reorganised and rearmed both the army and navy as a result of the devastating effects of the war, and universal military conscription was introduced in January 1874. Security of tenure was also enacted alongside a new penal code and a simplified system of civil and criminal procedure. In all, Alexander II's judicial reforms have by and large been considered successful.

Alexander II and his wife Marie Alexandrovna. 

The Tsar is also famous for encouraging Finnish nationalism, Finland traditionally being a part of the Imperial Russian Empire. At the same time, separatist movements were suppressed, leading to the January Uprising of 1863-4 in which hundreds of Poles were executed and thousands deported to Siberia. Territories of the former Poland-Lithuania were excluded from Alexander's reforms. Native languages alongside Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian were banned from printed texts, while the Polish language was banned in oral and written form in all provinces except Congress Poland.

The Tsar's reign, despite the relative success of his reforms, was however plagued by repeat assassination attempts. In 1866 Dmitry Karakozov attempted to assassinate the emperor in St. Petersburg, but failed and was executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Repeat attempts followed in the following years. The Tsar's reforms were met with criticism and hostility by many of his subjects; some believed he had gone too far while others argued that he had not gone nearly far enough.

Following Alexander's death his son, Alexander III, acceded to the throne. The "Liberator Tsar" had reigned for 26 years and his death was a setback for the reform movement. It is possible that, had he lived, Russia might have become a constitutional monarchy instead of becoming more oppressive during the reign of Alexander III. The assassination inspired anarchists to advocate "propaganda by deed" - ie. using spectacular violence to incite revolution or rebellion. The striking Church of the Saviour on the Blood was built, construction beginning in 1883, on the site of the Tsar's assassination and was dedicated to his memory. Alexander III used the Church to commemorate both his father's death alongside symbolising a return to Russian nationalist spirit and a rejection of the reforms and traditions associated with Peter the Great.

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Above: The Church of the Saviour on the Blood was built on the spot of Alexander II's assassination in 1881.

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